By Josh Seemann | Cutting Edge Consulting and Research Services
The planter is the most important piece of equipment that farmers own. It is the tool that sets the trajectory of their profits for the season. If planting is done to perfection, the sky is the limit for profitability.
If it’s just a process we do to cover acres, our ceiling has been set and we will be playing catch up the rest of the season. Believe it or not, but 75 percent of the yield for a field is dictated from the time the planter pulls into the field to the time it pulls out. This fact is why farmers should spend most of their time in the offseason making sure their planters operate at peak performance from beginning to end. I’m going to highlight a few areas that play a big role in determining yield.
When planting is done, take your meters apart, clean them and look for any area that is abnormally worn. If possible, have your meters calibrated every two to three years to make sure they are in top condition.
Disk openers are the next component I would inspect. The disk openers prepare the seed bed where the seed will be placed. If they are off, the seed is not placed accurately and germination could be reduced. To ensure that a perfect V is made, there needs to be 2 to 3 inches of contact between the disk openers. This can be checked by using two business cards. Start one from the top and one from the bottom until they stay by themselves. Measure the distance between them. The diameter of the disk opener is important to determine the true depth where the seed is placed. Most disk openers when new are 15 inches and should be replaced when they get below 14½ inches. If you have coarse soils or plant more than 2,000 acres, you will want to replace your disk openers sooner, around 14₅⁄₈ inches.
After inspecting the disk openers, I would check how level the planter runs. To do this, hook up the planter as if you were planting, take it out to a field, put it in the ground and drive 50 to 75 feet then slowly stop the tractor. When this is done, go back and check the level at four spots on the planter. First, check the transport (tongue) toolbar. This can be done best with a 4-foot level. You want the planter to be level with the ground to slightly pointed up. If it is not where it should be, go back to the tractor and adjust 2-point or hydraulics to get it where it needs to be. Once the main toolbar is level, go back to the row unit parallel arms and check the level on each side and middle with a torpedo level. The parallel arms should have the same or similar attitude as the toolbar you already checked.
Chains and sprockets are the next location to inspect. If your planter has chains, specifically row unit chains, they need to be looked at very closely. If there is a kink or a stuck link in the chain, every time it comes around it could cause a double, skip or some other spacing issue. The farmers that take planter prep to the nth degree actually replace row unit chains every year. It is a small price to pay to ensure planter performance and seed placement. All chains should be inspected and lubed, and sprockets should be examined for even wear. If sprockets aren’t wearing evenly, replace them and look to see where adjustments need to be made.
Gauge wheels are one of the most important parts of planters because they are used to set the planting depth. How you set them will vary based on the make of the planter. The true depth will also vary with wear on the gauge wheel arm. If there is more than ¼ inch of wear on the arm where it meets the “mustache,” the arm needs to be flipped to the other side. For example, if the gauge wheel arm comes off the right side of row six, it can be flipped and put on the left side. If this has already been done, the gauge wheel arm needs to be replaced. If farmers want to get the most out of their planters, they can index them. This is somewhat complicated to explain, but it involves looking at the individual wear of each row to make sure every row is at the same depth. The gauge wheel also needs to be shimmed or adjusted so that the wheel runs tight against the disk opener. This helps to clean the disk opener and maintain depth.
Row cleaners are the last mechanical part. They are an important part on a planter because they remove residue from the row. If residue makes it into the seed trench it can greatly reduce germination and/or emergence. Residue in the trench acts as a wick: In a dry planting season, it removes needed moisture from the seed; in a wet planting season, it wicks more moisture to the seed and can be a starting point for diseases.
The final topic I want to cover is planter speed. Most planters (except high-speed models) are designed to meter seed between 4½ and 5½ mph. If you think of a finger pickup planter, at 4½ mph it meters out corn seed at almost twice the speed that an M-60 machine gun fires projectiles downrange. You also have to consider how much the planter and row unit moves/bounces as it travels across the field. In my opinion, field conditions dictate the speed at which the planter should be run. The rougher the field, the slower the planter should be run, while smooth conditions allow for speeds at the higher end.